2 Corinthians 9:1-15
Preaching Date: July 28, 2019
Key Sentence: A steward gives to God’s work generously, willingly and cheerfully.
I. Be Prepared to Give (2 Corinthians 9:1-5)
II. Sow Generously and Cheerfully (2 Corinthians 9:6-7)
III. Reap the true benefits of giving (2 Corinthians 9:8-15)
One of my favorite stories the early Apollo program concerns James Webb, NASA’s Administrator. As Jim Donavan tells the story in Shoot for the Moon, "Webb had experience working a budget. His time on Capitol Hill came in handy later that year when the president asked him how much it would cost to put a man on the moon. Webb’s staff had given an estimate of thirteen billion dollars, but Webb decided on a different amount, one that provided some flexibility to counter the optimism of NASA’s technical experts. Webb didn’t want to have to go back in a few years and ask for more money; who knew how supportive Congress would be then? So he told Kennedy the lunar program would cost upward of twenty billion dollars, an outrageous sum. When Webb’s people heard about it, they were shocked. “I put an administrator’s discount on it,” he told them. Though that figure would rise modestly through the years (the final price tag would end up a few billion more), it reflected well on NASA that the agency stayed close to its initial budget.”
Now I realize that’s not a story about cheerful generosity, but about cheerfully asking for generosity. That’s part of what I’m doing today. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’ve done a sermon, in 27 years entirely devoted to encouraging generous giving to the church and the kingdom. I have a shyness common to pastors, that preaching about giving is somehow self-serving, and also painful for the hearers. I’m not sure why I feel this, since it directly contradicts my own experience, in which cheerful, willing generous giving is a huge blessing.
In any event, it wouldn’t make sense to go through a series on stewardship without talking about our personal giving to God’s church and God’s kingdom. For many people this is stewardship. When I was growing up in the Presbyterian Church we had a stewardship campaign every year, where people were urged to plan and communicate their giving. But stewardship is much more. The foundation, as we’ve seen, is that we are not our own. We were bought at a price through the sacrifice of Jesus, and we are now God’s treasured possession. Therefore, nothing else is our own either. Our stuff, our time, our energy, and our money all belong to God. We are stewards, those who manage the king’s possessions, and we are called to do that wisely and faithfully, taking practical steps that will make our stuff most available to the king.
But what good would that do if we never gave? If I’m managing well, but doing it all for my benefit, little or nothing to benefit the kingdom, I’m not a steward. I’m an independent operator, living by the world’s standard, self-fulfillment.
The alternate, Scripture says, is generous, willing, cheerful giving. That’s true of our time, our energy and our stuff, but most uniquely true of money, our financial resources. Today, in 2 Corinthians 9, we’ll see that a steward gives to God’s work cheerfully and generously. We’ll learn that we need to be prepared to give, and when we give generously and cheerfully we do reap true benefits.
We begin with 2 Corinthians 9:1-5 Now it is superfluous for me to write to you about the ministry for the saints, 2for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year. And your zeal has stirred up most of them. 3But I am sending the brothers so that our boasting about you may not prove empty in this matter, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be. 4Otherwise, if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated, to say nothing of you, for being so confident. 5So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction.
Paul spends two chapters in this letter talking about giving. The underlying situation is a special offering for believers in Jerusalem. This is mentioned in Romans, in 1st Corinthians, and here, and may be due to a famine in Palestine, foretold in Acts 11. In 1st Corinthians Paul said “Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. 2On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so there will be no collecting when I come. 3And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem.” In Romans he says “For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.”
But the Corinthians had yet to collect this offering, for in 2nd Corinthians 8 Paul says to them “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 2for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, 4begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints, 5and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.”
He uses the example of the poor Macedonian churches to encourage the Corinthians to complete their commitment to giving to this special offering. Later in chapter 8 he explains that he’s sent Titus and at least two others, not to bring the offering to Jerusalem, but to make sure the Corinthians have given it.
Now Paul circles back to further instruct the Corinthians in the truth about giving. In verses 1 and 2 he commends them for the readiness they’d shown after his first appeal. But it’s been a year, and he’s sending these brothers to make sure they were really ready, as he had boasted to the Macedonians. In verse 4 he says “if I got there and you weren’t ready we would both be put to shame, me for my confidence in you and you for your unreadiness.
One application of all this is captured in our slang saying “put your money where your mouth is.” If you say you’re going to give, even if it’s only said to your spouse or your family, or even to God or in your own heart, you need to keep that promise. This goes back to last week, where a key practical enabler of stewardship was planning. Proverbs said, “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.” Willing, cheerful, generous giving starts in the act of planning. The Corinthians have been planning this for a year. You may feel that giving spontaneously, led by the Spirit in the moment, is the only right way to give. And sometimes that kind of giving is wonderful. But Paul is more concerned about being prepared and keeping a long term commitment. That’s why I like the James Webb story. His asking for over 20 billion dollars for Apollo was about generous planning, and so in later years when the peak budget reached almost 5 billion dollars a year and Congress began to question the program, Webb could point to the original budget and say “we told you we were going to ask for this.”
So this is the place to ask yourself the question “how much should I plan to give.” I can’t say everything I want to say about this yet, because the rest of the text speaks to it, but I’ll say this: plan to give an amount, or a percent of your income and once you have planned it, take it out of your funds first, and either give it immediately or set it aside for the next opportunity. All of us who are surviving month to month have at least a mental list of what comes out of our paycheck first. Taxes come out automatically. We know we have to pay rent or mortgage. We have to do other stuff, probably more than the money will cover. But too often we leave giving last. We plan to give some amount to the church, and other amounts to missionaries or organizations, but we end the paycheck with less than we need, and giving takes the hit. Give first.
So, point one, prepare to give. Point two, give willingly, generously and cheerfully. This is the heart of the New Testament teaching. Verses 6-7 The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
Paul himself says that this is the central point of his comments: generous, willing, cheerful giving. He starts with a proverb about generosity, the law of sowing and reaping. “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Kent Hughes says in his commentary, “There are two ways to sow. One is to carefully place each seed in a furrow as if each was a diamond in a museum. “Let's see, here's a seed for this one, and here's one for this one. One must be careful with one's seeds.” This harvest will not be much! The other is that of the sower, striding long steps across the earth, reaching into his abundance, and sowing with generous swings of his arm. The earth will sprout accordingly, and the harvest will be great.”
The proverb uses a word often translated "blessing." The ESV has “bountifully,” but it literally reads "Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows blessing will also reap blessing.” If you cling to what God has given you, like Charles Dickens’ Scrooge, you will become like Scrooge as we meet him, “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” Then he’s transformed, and pledges to honor the spirit of Christmas, which for Dickens is generosity and community. He’s “as light as a feather, as happy as an angel, as merry as a school-boy.” He’s “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old City ever knew.” When you sow blessing, you reap blessing. We’ll see that in the last section.
So, led by the Spirit, our giving can not only be generous, but willing. “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion.” This goes back to planning. It’s a decision you make, not set by a rule or imposed from outside. It’s not something I as your pastor can tell you, nor that TV preacher. It’s a willing decision from the heart. But, the heart of a steward, one who knows they don’t own anything but use all things for God’s purposes. It’s the heart of David, as we saw last week, “everything we have comes from you and of your own we have given you.” The Spirit makes us willing when we ask “God, what do you want to do with your money.” That can be a life changing question, because it’s easier to give away someone else’s money than to give money we consider our own and have our own uses for.
In fact, that question takes us further toward not just generous giving, not just willing giving, but cheerful giving. Paul ends by saying “God loves a cheerful giver.” The Greek word cheerful is “hilaros,” the root of our ‘hilarious’ or ‘hilarity.’ Chuck Swindoll is known for saying our generosity ought to be hilarious. But what does it really mean? From the Greek I get the impression it’s that thing in you that bubbles over, that almost giggles when you’re doing something you love or blessing someone you love or are given a wonderful opportunity.
Children show us this. Most parents remember a time when your child made you a picture or got you a present and it was supposed to be a surprise but they were so excited about it they could not wait to give it to you, but spilled the beans the moment they saw you. Paul says that giving is a wonderful opportunity. This is what Scrooge gained. I love the cartoon Kent Hughes describes in which two Victorian men are sitting in a London club. One is holding a book and explains, "It's a new story by that Dickens fellow, about a worthy banker named Scrooge, who finally degenerates into a sentimental weakling." No, it’s about learning the joy of generous, willing, cheerful giving.
This concept isn’t new with Paul. In Deuteronomy 15, referring to forgiving of debts every seven years, God said “You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.'"
So how do we achieve generous, willing, cheerful giving? Let me give you one suggestion for each of the words. To learn to be generous, set the bar high. It used to be that in Christian circles people talked about tithing, giving a tenth of your income to God. Then we got cautious and began saying, rightly, that it wasn’t the percent but the attitude that mattered. But that became an excuse to cheerfully give less. I believe the absence in the New Testament of a fixed standard is a reason to set the bar way higher. Maybe you should consider ten percent as a bare minimum and make a plan to go much higher, to twenty or forty, or as R. G. LeTourneau is famous for, ninety percent of your income.
Second, willingly. This is where an attitude of stewardship is so important. “God, what do you want to do with your money.” It’s easier to give away money that’s not yours. And it’s not. If we can give up the grasping Scroogeness that is the natural behavior of people in a fallen world, we can be willing to give.
And cheerful? We become cheerful when we recognize the blessing of giving. As Paul said that Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Let me give one practical way I’ve experienced this blessing. I’ve said that you should plan your giving. I’ve said that just winging it and waiting for some specific leading is probably not the path to generous giving. But, let me fine tune that. If you have a giving budget, “I’m going to give this much to the church, and this much to this missionary, and this much to this organization,” then leave a little space at the end of that budget for special opportunities. When God lays something special on your heart, it’s pure joy to be able to pull out this excess you’ve been designating to giving and just drop it on a need or opportunity.
And the blessing goes both ways. I’ve been blessed by the freedom God has given Gail and I at times in our financial journey to do that kind of giving. But since I’ve been a pastor I’ve been more often blessed by the generous, unasked-for and often anonymous giving that’s been done to and for us. I imagine those of you who anonymously gave money to reduce the cost of the little camper Gail and I are buying from the Cousins must have had a sly joy in going behind our backs to pay that. I don’t know who you are, but thank you.
Which leads naturally to the last section. Y’all know I’m opposed to the prosperity gospel, because it’s both un-Biblical and hurtful. But that doesn’t mean giving has no benefits or blessings. 2nd Corinthians 9:8-15 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. 9As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 10He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. 12For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. 13By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, 14while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. 15Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!
Paul now turns to the benefits of generous giving. R. Kent Hughes divides these into personal benefits and community benefits, saying “He begins with personal benefits, the first of which is sufficiency: "And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” God will give us what we need to give. We will always be rich enough to be generous. “Do we doubt this?” Hughes asks. “Then we doubt his grace, the grace with which this verse begins: “And God is able to make all grace abound to you..." This mention of grace refers back to “the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.”
Grace has been given to us, as it had been given to the Corinthians, so that right now we have what we need to give and minister to others. God's grace is sufficient for every good work he calls us to do. The generous, giving heart will live in this grace “so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” The challenge for us is to believe this, and obey.
The other personal benefit to the generous heart is righteousness. Verse 9 “As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 10He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.” Verse 9 quotes Psalm 112:9. The righteousness of the man in this Psalm is proved by his care for the poor. Paul continues the idea of righteousness in verse 10 by citing Isaiah 55:10 almost word for word from the Septuagint: “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food...” Then Paul alludes to Hosea 10:12, telling his readers that God who supplies seed to the sower will multiply their seed (i.e., material resources) and thus increase the harvest of their righteous deeds. Willing, generous, giving people enjoy a harvest of righteousness that goes far beyond themselves.
Finally there are three community-wide benefits to such giving. First, thanksgiving to God. Verses 11-12 “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. 12For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.” The Corinthians' enrichment through giving was not material prosperity. Their financial state would wax and wane, but they would be enriched by God himself. The overarching benefit was that the community poured out thanksgiving to God.
The second, parallel benefit is glory to God: “By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others.” The Corinthians' embrace of the gospel would be proved not only by their confession of belief but by their submission to the grace of giving and their generous contribution to the poor church in Jerusalem. In the city of Jerusalem, the Jewish church would praise God for the demonstration of God's righteousness among the Corinthians. They would know the Gentile church was for real and through the new covenant they were all brothers and sisters.
The third benefit was affection for the Corinthians themselves: “while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you” As Paul anticipates that "the surpassing grace of God" will produce a generous offering, he knows that the Jewish believers will make the Gentiles a focus of their prayer, enhancing the wider unity of the church. Just as Gail and I have felt a true affection for those who anonymously gave to the camper, and just as the elders of Trinity have felt a deep love for those who generously gave to replace the air conditioner, so the community as a whole benefits and is drawn together when its members are cheerfully generous.
As Paul caps his exhortation to give, he can scarcely contain himself: "Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!" He was giving thanks, of course, for Christ. This is the first time the Greek word “inexpressible” appears anywhere in the Greek language. Paul could find no word to express the glory, so he made one up, a word that says, in effect, that the gift can't be described.
What we must understand from this is that Paul's call to generous, willing, cheerful giving is not a call to reach down deep within our beings and rise to the best that is within us. Rather, it is a call to authentically come to Christ in true belief and repentance. It is a call to contemplate Christ's giving as the example for our giving—his embrace of poverty that we might become rich. It is not a call to legalistic observance but to grace, as Paul's repeated mentions of grace emphasize. It is a call to rise to his best within us, because we’re stewards.
Being a steward, rather than seeking self-fulfillment, is a very practical thing. We plan and prepare so that we can well give our resources, our money to the work of the church and the work of the kingdom. Then we give more and more generously, more and more willingly, more and more cheerfully.